On Jan. 20, 2017 at 11:30 a.m., Donald J. Trump was sworn into office. The Trumps were already a high-profile family, but now they are a political family—no longer just rich and entertaining.
With the transition from penthouse to White House, there are new responsibilities. No action, no tweet, and no plagiarized speech goes unnoticed.
No outfit does, either.
Creating an outfit for the first lady of the United States grants designers the opportunity to showcase their talents to a large and prominent audience. If done well, that outfit represents the values of the nation and the values of the nation’s presidential family.
Though it could seem superficial to place so much emphasis on an outfit, at an event as distinguished and photographed as the inauguration, everything is dissected.
Therefore, when Marc Jacobs, Sophie Theallet, Humberto Leon, and other designers staunchly refused to dress Melania Trump for the inauguration in protest of her affiliations, it made headlines.
Not all designers were opposed, though. Ralph Lauren, a brand devoted to creating quintessential American style, created a custom look for Melania. The outfit was a powder-blue, cashmere mock neck dress paired with a matching cropped jacket, gloves, and stilettos.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who has previously collaborated with Ralph Lauren during her presidential campaign, donned one of Ralph Lauren’s all-white pantsuits. White, according to History.com, is a color Clinton often wears presumably because of its associations with the women’s suffrage movement.
The controversy at the inauguration centered on Melania’s powder-blue look. Her Ralph Lauren outfit was strikingly similar to the wool Oleg Cassini dress that first lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s 1961 inauguration. Both were pale blue dresses with coats, both had gloves, and both were in a charming, conservative 1960s fashion.
Perhaps this copy-cat look was so jarring because former first lady Michelle Obama set a high bar for personal, political style.
Obama understood social media and the press. She knew that everything she wore would be scrutinized, and that an outfit is not merely an outfit but a political statement. Frankly, she nailed diplomatic fashion.
When Obama traveled to foreign countries, she not only followed social dress codes but promoted designers who had ties to those countries. Perhaps not everybody saw the significance when she wore a gown by London-based American designer Tom Ford while visiting the Queen of England in 2011, but for those who did notice, it mattered. She recognized fashion as a platform to show respect. From J. Crew cardigans to Jason Wu gowns, Michelle Obama was not just stylish; she was smart.
So when Melania Trump became our newest first lady of the United States, people around the world looked to her for some type of subliminal message.
At first, Melania’s choice to channel Jacqueline Kennedy’s style outraged me. I thought, “first you copied Michelle’s speech, now Jackie’s clothes?”
Melania’s choice to showcase herself like Jacqueline Kennedy might be foreshadowing her role in the White House. Like Melania, Kennedy was relatively quiet on the political front compared to other first ladies like Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.
Therefore, I found the outfit appropriate for Melania, a first lady who I imagine will have a similar role to Jackie’s: style icon and devoted mother. Then again, Kennedy never posed nude for the cover of British GQ magazine.
For the event’s proceedings, Melania chose only American designers, a suitable decision not only for the first lady of the United States, but also for a presidential campaign focused on rebuilding national pride.
On Thursday’s wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, she wisely wore a military-inspired coat by Norisol Ferrari, a New York designer whose father, according to Ferrari’s interview with Women’s Wear Daily, is a wounded veteran.
Aside from Ferrari and Ralph Lauren, the other designers Melania worked with were, interestingly enough, immigrants. At the Union Station dinner, Melania wore a golden gown designed by New York designer and Lebanon-native, Reem Acra. And the elegant, white ball gown that Melania wore inauguration night was designed by Hervé Pierre, who moved to New York from France in the ’90s.
Working with designers who immigrated to the US was a suitable decision for our first lady, a Slovenian immigrant herself. But it’s ironic, considering her husband’s xenophobic attitude and anti-immigration policies.
In fact, French immigrant Sophie Theallet, a designer who often dressed Michelle Obama, publicly refused to work with Melania. On Nov. 17, she tweeted an open letter calling out the President for expressing racist, sexist, and xenophobic values.
It is not only Americans, but people overseas, who are looking to Melania for a message, for a stance, and for a sign of diplomacy and respect, regardless of her husband’s values. In today’s visual world, where a photo conveys a message just as well as a speech, outfits must be calculated. Outfits must be meaningful.
Melania, who is a former model, already knows fashion, but whether she knows political fashion is yet to be determined. I’d like to see her develop a style that speaks to the platforms she cares about, but first, we need to know what she actually cares about.
As French designer Hervé Pierre told Harper’s Bazaar, “She's presidential now; she's not just a fashion plate." Let’s see how it goes. It’s just the beginning.